A couple of months back a friend asked me if I want to join for a trip through Myanmar. Having a quick look into it I decided to put it on my radar and to join him. Myanmar is relatively undiscovered by tourists since it was hard to travel till the recent years. Being a corrupt and unstable place still suffering from civil wars in some regions.
But since a while the country is opening up and improving the infrastructure such as getting ATM’s -which didn’t exist 3 years ago, more stable power grids -which still interrupt few times a day- and internet -which works once in a while but slowly. It also became more stable and opened certain regions for tourism which a few years back required special permissions.
Nevertheless, I had to change my plans to enter the country by bus due to a border incident. Instead I booked a flight and got safely to Yangon the former capital. I knew that traveling this country its more of an adventure than traveling other places in south east asia. But I didn’t expect not to get any money from any ATM at the airport. Yap, my bank card didn’t work anywhere during the whole trip in Myanmar. I should have followed the advice to bring some USD’s with me. Somehow I managed to get some cash and made my way to the center and with some help of locals even to the pre-booked guesthouse.
Later that night we went for some dinner and had to recognise how friendly people are. If you asked them for help they didn’t bother it also happened that random people just asked if they could help. In general it felt like they are very excited that foreigners come to their place. More and more we recognised the standard in services in this country. The strangest thing might be how they call a waiter to make an order or to get the bill. Just make a kissing sound and they will instantly turn around and face you. Some people even do it to get fire for the cigaret, seriously.
First day in Myanmar and first adventure. Taking the so called circular train going around the center and some outer skirts of the city. One turn takes about 3 hours even if its just a ~50km trip. Its a bumpy, shaky as well as hot trip in an old British carriage from former colonial times. And the infrastructure seems to be from the same time with barely any maintenance done the last few decades.
The center is full with some nice colonial style building but also dominated by simple apartment houses from old times. Doesn’t really look inviting but has some character. If the train once gets into the outskirts the housing changes to simple huts in the middle of fields and simple houses along the track.
The trip only costs 200KIB or 0.20USD but shows you the other site of this economical capital.
Back in the center I made my way to one of the biggest Pagodas – the Shwedagon Pagoda. A huge golden temple near the center. The big pagoda is surrounded by countless smaller ones. The walk ways between them are almost spotless. Not really surprising after you saw the cleaning people. About 30 to 50 person are walking in lines withe brooms and mops keeping the place clean.
Our next destination was the one night bus away city of ancient Bagan. A mystical place with its thousands of temples and what is left is just a fraction of the original size. A huge complex of pagodas and smaller constructions scattered all over the place.
Even though this place is a major attraction and to some part protected the space between the temple is used for agriculture. And that in an old fashioned way.
Bagan is one of the main destinations in Myanmar for foreigners. Most of them will be attracted to the ancient city and come here at some point in their journey. And so do the souvenir sellers. After we got shown some viewpoint to take pictures from the girls wanted us to have a look at their shops. Not really wanted to buy something but feeling bad to refuse her I left with a handful of souvenirs. Finally, everyone was happy.
Another thing which I will remember from Bagan are the delicious Tamarin Flakes. A candy made from the fruit of the tamarin tree, super sweet but also super delicious. Unfortunately you only get them there 🙁
From Bagan we headed east to Hsipaw in the mountains. Everywhere where you have tourists you might find some scams and so did we on that day. Changing bus at Pyyin Oo Lwin we were told we have to go to another bus station. Arriving at the place which was like a taxi stand they told us no more bus but we could take a private car for 30$. Not sure about what to do we ended finally up with the deal.
The drive through the mountains was fairly quick and on the way we got to see a lot of the landscape. As well as several accidents where as buses and trucks were most likely the ones which suffered. a truck on its side in the rocky wall, a bus on its side as well and a motorcycle driver which just got back up on his legs. Poor guy.
Hsipaw is a small town in the mountains on the rail track to Lashio. A perfect place to head out to the villages of the Shan people. The next two days we hiked up into one of the villages and back down. Spending one night at one of the bamboo huts in the village. Getting into touch with some locals, with the kids at the school and get to know how it is to live in the hills. Most people here work in the surrounding tea plantations. The product is a black tea which looks like coffee and somehow taste a bit like coffee.
One thing which made me feel bad in this country and especially in these places were the extremely bad teeth of so many people here. An effect of chewing the betel nut which destroys the teeth as well as the gums.
On the way back to Hsipaw we crossed this street service team fixing some bad ass potholes in the street. All done in perhaps the technique and with the material they once learned/got from the British.
After another couple of nights relaxing in Hsipaw I took a train back to Pyin Oo Lwin. Another adventure for itself. At the station I met a familiar face I first met a couple of months ago in Mongolia. Together we got our tickets in a quite unusual train office. Everything is still done on paper like in all the guesthouses as well.
The train ride itself is spectacular for the crossing of the infamous Goteik viaduct built during the colonial time and it’s already over 100 years old. Getting there takes quite a bit of time since the train goes very slowly on its choppy track. The carriages are torquing, jumping and shaking in all thinkable ways. A wonder that the train still goes and also not surprising that it is considered to be unsafe to take!
Next adventure was waiting for me on the next morning. After one night in Pyin Oo Lwin I was heading for Inle Lake one day trip away. First mean of transportation was a pickup to Mandalay. On the way there I once more recognised all the places which change tires and cool the disks of the trucks and buses brakes! Not much profile left on that rubber … and just shortly after we saw one more truck lying on its site almost rolling down the slope.
Since I didn’t want to take a night bus I ended up in doing my transfer from Mandalay to Inle Lake on my own. First I got a bus to Meiktila where I got dropped off. Some locals then pointed me the way to the office selling mini bus tickets to the place. Not really happy about the place I finally had to agree since there it was the only option I had. At least the drive was much faster than expected and just ‘after’ sunset I got dropped once more. But still a 10km march away or a short ride on a vehicle. After I started to walk just to escape the moto drivers which were once more quite annoying i approached a street check point. The person in charge must have been sorry for the poor guy walking and waved down a pickup which agreed to give me a lift. A free lift was not enough but he also went straight through the checkpoint at the villages entrance where tourists have to pay a entrance fee for the region which saved me 10$!
At the end he dropped me at his family’s restaurant which became my lunch place for the time i spent in Inle Lake. Thats once more about the hospitality in this country.
Iile Lake is well known because of its gorgeous lake and the culture around it. One of the spectacular things to see are the fishermen which manoeuvre their with their leg while using the hands for the fishing net.
There is also some agriculture on the lake. The floating gardens are literarily floating. The people here grow tomatoes for the whole country. Huge gardens which you can enter by boat. Second time I saw something like this after lake titicaca in Bolivia.
After all the impressions of this amazing place I headed back to the south. Next destination Mawlamyine, just a night bus to Yangon and another six hours from there to the south. The first place which felt like not to be a main destination for the tourists. A quite worn out city on the shore of the river. Stretching around a hill and along the water site.
Its the capital of the Mon state and the fourth biggest in the country. From here you can head out on a day trip to the nearby island which is civilised by mon people. A place you will see many ancient things. This ox trailer is not very uncommon though out the whole country.
Never thought about how rubber bands are produced but for me was sure they come out of a machine. Not here … they are handmade made from natural rubber. Dried in a smoking chamber, sliced by an old machine and sorted out by hand.
Another example was an ancient rice cleaner which shall be in operation for over once century. The shaking tower is powered by this steam engine which is regularly maintained. I don’t wanna know whats the ratio of operating hours to maintain hours!
Back in the center many old colonial buildings can be found. Most of them are in miserable conditions. No renovation and that perhaps since the english left many decades back.
Next on the list was Dawei even further in the south. Final destination would be a border crossing back to Thailand in the far south. The street to Dawei was almost not existing so bad were the condition and that without rain. Sitting in the overnight bus and watching how the headlights of crossing vehicles approached was kind of fascinating. Especially the manoeuvre they did to cross on the narrow jungle street. Although, sometimes there is not enough space and so we saw one more wrecked bus on the side of the street.
To get some rest I spent a night in a beautiful place near Dawei. A laid back guesthouse surrounded by coconut trees. Here I learned what they to with the dried coconuts. They press the oil out of the flesh wich later on is processed to cosmetic products.
My last mean of transportation was a 10hour speed ferry to the border town in the far south. A trip which was not without especially since you have to check in to the office at 1am. Being transferred to a harbour somewhere and leaving that one at 4am in a boat which after half of the trip was packed with people.
While floating to the end of this amazing part of my trip I was thinking about all the nice impression of this country. All the extraordinary friendly people, the unbelievable beauty of the nature here and the ancient infrastructure of this country.